by Michelle Chan
Every aspect of modern incarceration has been meticulously engineered to threaten and shatter all sense of self-worth and to drain the mind and soul of all vigor and clarity: every filthy toilet, every rotten apple, every oven-hot cell, every act of control, coercion, violence, isolation.
Prison is punishment. Prison is racism. Prison is vengeance. Prison is the criminalization of poverty, the institutional oppression and enslavement disproportionately and intentionally inflicted upon the descendants of enslaved people. Prison is NOT rehabilitation. Prison does NOT prevent or reduce crime. Prison IS slavery.
According to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 2.2 million adults were held in America’s prisons and jails at the end of 2016. That’s 2.2 million adults who did NOT benefit from evidence based substance abuse or mental health treatment. That’s 2.2 million adults whose trauma and victimization were NOT addressed and treated as the root cause of the circumstances leading to their incarceration – 2.2 million lives with dimmer prospects and far less hope.
The everyday brutality and indignity of prison life is compounded by the aching separation of parents from their children. This pain is ever more profound from the perspective of children landing in foster care who lose everything they have ever known and loved.
Open your eyes and your heart. Listen to the stories of those personally impacted and imprisoned. Try to imagine a better, more humane world. This world is possible. Healing is possible. #FreeHer. #FreeThemAll.
Second Annual #FreeHer Conference in Montgomery, Alabama
From Oct. 4 to 6, 2019, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (the Council) hosted the Second Annual Free Her Conference at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel located in Montgomery, Alabama. The conference was a reimagining of communities and convening of ideas, resources and trainings that connected talented activists with movement elders to support local initiatives to organize toward a shared goal of criminal legal reform and prison abolition.
#FreeHer2019 began with a tour of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama, on a site that was once a warehouse for human chattel. Montgomery was the port city most active in slave trading, and the Legacy Museum is an impassioned reminder of the racism this so-called land of the free was built upon.
Like so many others, she found herself cycling in and out of the criminal system that masquerades as a justice system.
The museum welcomes visitors with an exhibit featuring five slave pens with holographic figures and sounds of hushed whispers. From that moment on we are haunted by the ghosts of a hundred thousand slaves dead from a lifetime of subjugation and imprisonment. The museum poignantly highlights the savagery of life in the American South pre- and post-slavery: the forced servitude, the 4,400 lynched men, women and children, to the current day enslavement of Blacks in our prisons and jails.
One of the focus issues presented at #FreeHer2019 was on child welfare reform and abolition and repealing the Adoption and Safe Families Act, or ASFA. ASFA was enacted in 1997 by President Bill Clinton and made sweeping changes to the way federal Title IV-E funding is allocated to states by shifting focus from family preservation to permanency and incentivizing child removals and adoptions. ASFA placed overly restrictive limits on the amount of time allotted to complete reunification services and regain custody of children.
If a child has been in foster care for the 15 most recent out of 22 months, child protection agencies must move to terminate parental rights and adopt children out. Incarceration of a parent does not stop this clock. Moreover, a provision in ASFA permits child protection agencies to bypass reunification efforts based on “aggravated circumstances,” which may include parental incarceration.
The Foster Care to Prison Pipeline: Vonya Quarles’ story
Vonya Quarles is a former foster youth and third generation formerly incarcerated and convicted woman who lost two children to adoption while incarcerated. After spending much of her life cycling in and out of the child welfare and prison systems, she proved to the world that society was wrong about her. This is her story.
Vonya’s mother was incarcerated for robbing banks in San Pedro, a small town in Los Angeles County, with a group of women who referred to themselves as “the Bell Star Bandits.” Vonya describes how she internalized her mother’s imprisonment as her own, how viciously agonizing it was at the age of five to lose everything in an eye’s blink.
The foster home she was placed in remains branded in her memory like a searing hot sword forever lodged in her heart. While the years and ordinary details of her time in that home are blurred, she remembers with horrific precision the bathroom where the molestations happened, the scalding water tossed upon her skin as punishment, the worn and rusty backyard teeter totter which she was forbidden to touch and how it was one day used to cut through her skin.
She remembers choking on her own tears and mucus, closing her eyes and wishing and praying with every inch of her soul that she could vanish from this earth, vanish from this existence. During the years Vonya suffered in foster care, she felt every minute as if the walls were caving in on her, and the profound sense of emptiness that sprung from the deepest folds of her soul followed her into adulthood and cast itself upon her like a shadow.
Then came the ‘80s. Urban poverty and violent crime was on the rise as Blacks and Latinx became increasingly segregated and marginalized in isolated areas. Crack cocaine hit the streets of LA.
Public discourse and panic surged as stereotypes of crack-smoking criminal-minded welfare queens emerged. Policymakers responded by implementing tough crack sentences, mandatory prison terms for possession of paraphernalia and even miniscule amounts of crack. The prevailing attitudes were discipline, deterrence and zero tolerance.
Vonya with all her trauma and heartache and unanswered introspections crumbled in crack cocaine’s power to obliterate reality and consciousness, to cancel out the past and render the present and future irrelevant. Like so many others, she found herself cycling in and out of the criminal system that masquerades as a justice system. She was a slave to her addiction and thought the cycles of incarceration and poverty would never end.
“From the time that handcuffs were put on me and through to the end, I felt the greatest burn of indignity imaginable,” said Vonya. “There was a night that I was being transported to jail and while I was handcuffed in the backseat the officer tasered me because I wouldn’t shut up. I was emotional and angry and was talking about what I felt were injustices when the officer tasered me to quiet me down. My friend began to yell, ‘Vonya, stop! They’re gonna kill us.’ We were both terrified.”
Vonya learned quickly that she had no control of her own person. She speaks of the utter degradation of entering into prison, of having to strip naked in circles of other naked women, of being inspected like an animal right before the slaughter. She and others were told that their lives were over.
“In Sybil Brand, there were these elevators. Sometimes girls were officer escorted into them never to be seen again. They were beaten so bad they’d end up in the infirmary. God knows where after that,” said Vonya.
Vonya found a way to heal, and, after cycling in and out of incarceration for several years, she completed law school. She is now a practicing attorney in Riverside, California, and co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Starting Over, which provides transitional housing, reentry services, advocacy and leadership development to its criminal justice and child welfare system-impacted clients.
Nothing About Us Without Us
System-impacted women and girls are now leading the criminal law reform, prison abolition and child welfare reform and abolition movements and showing the American public and policymakers that previous beliefs on punitive punishments and “rehabilitation” are wrong. We need to start addressing “crime and punishment” from a healing justice perspective.
People commit crimes more often than not because they are poor or have substance abuse disorders or mental health issues. More often than not people who commit crimes are victims of violence and trauma themselves, especially women and girls. It truly is possible to focus on alternative models that address the root causes of issues rather than caging and torturing people. #FreeHer. #FreeThemAll.
Michelle D. Chan is president of Parents Against CPS Corruption and can be reached at email@example.com.